When Jerry Melvin walked into Robert's Drugstore this morning the half dozen businessmen who regularly gather there to chat were well into the news that five airmen from nearby Hurlburt Field had died in the abortive attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran.
"Let me tell you something," one was saying passionately. "I hope we try to do it again." "It's about time," said another. "It's just too damn bad that some of our boys had to die."
Melvin, the executive vice president of the town's chamer of commerce, thought a moment. "The one thing you'll learn here," he said, "is that, without a doubt everybody in this town feels the same way as the guys around the drugstore table. We're sad that these men had to die, but we're proud that something was finally tried -- and our community had something to do with it."
In the seafood restaurants and supermarkets, in the cheap, low-rise apartments where enlisted men live and in the fancy resort hotels, everyone here was talking about the part that tiny Hurlburt Field had played in the dramatic rescue effort. And almost everyone was calling for more of the same.
That is in keeping with the character of ths seaside resort of about 25,000, where almost half the population is either active Air Force personnel or retired military, and the mayor himself is a former commander of Hurlburt Field.
It was in 1970 when airmen from Hurlburt carried troops to Son Tay in North Vietnam for the unsuccessful attempt to rescue prisoners of war believed to be held there. Only after the commandos stormed the prison did they find that all had been moved.
"We're a very tightly knit community," said Mayor Bob Gates, "and we're very close to Hurlburt. There's a deep sense of loss here. I called the base commander last night to ask if there was anything the town could do. Everyone's anxious to help those families in any way they can."
In a community such as Fort Walton Beach, where patriotism is something to be proud of and fears over American humiliation grow with each new Iranian taunt or OPEC price increase, death in the service of one's country is deeply regretted, but just as deeply honored.
"We have a different feeling about it than most civilians," said Pat Thornber, the wife of a Hurlburt lieutenant colonel. "Military actions don't scare us. We live with the possiblility that our husbands will go off unexplained for days or weeks and that the next word we might have is that they were killed."
For those at Hurlburt, that posibility is ever present. It is an air base where hugh brooding C130s, especially equipped with electronic gear and heavy cannons squat cloaked in battleship gray on tarmac under 24-hour guard. Red rope lines on the ground mark the closest that anyone can approach their glowering fuselages. Approach closer and military police race out with sirens and flashing blue lights.
The fields' special mission and that of its 2,500 Air Force personnel, half of whom are crew or pilots or special commandos, is to launch unique and often classified missions at a moment's notice. "Readiness is Our Profession," reads the brightly painted sign at the gate. "Any time, any place," reads the crest of the 1st special operations wing, which is based there.
Hurlburt is often confused with the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base a few miles away. And until two years ago, it was an integral part of Eglin. Today it stands apart with its own PX, commissary, dispensary, movie theater, bowling alley and some 380 homes for enlisted men and officers with families. Public affairs officers proudly note that it was created during World War II so that Jimmy Doolittle could practice his Tokyo bombing mission in secret and it was named after an officer who was killed during the training.
Nonetheless, the Iranian mission has left many who work there shaken, partly because the community is so small that almost everyone knows everyone else by sight.
"We figured it was our guys when we heard that the U.S. had tried to rescue the hosages," said one airman who works on the base. "I'd seen their orders. We shipped them out to Ramstein [German] about a week ago and their orders said 'Ramstein' and 'variations authorized.' That was the clue they might do something else. They'd even been told to take shorts and they only do that when they're sending someone to a place where it's hot."
The airman, who sat sipping a beer in the tiny apartment he shares with several others, paused a moment. "I knew two of the guys, and most of the captains I'd seen around the base," he said. "We had to type out their death gratuities Friday morning and everyone was really shook." Death gratuities of $3,000 must be paid to the survivors of any serviceman within 24 hours of confirmation of his or her death, he said.
To many of those in the community, the most galling aspect of the rescue attempt was not that it had failed -- "at least we tried" most said -- but that equipment had been responsible for aborting the mission.
"Maybe we're not as prepared as we should be," said Larry Anchors, chairman of the Oskaloosa County commissioners. "Maybe we rely too much on nuclear and technical things."
Meanwhile, community leaders today were forging plans for a special commemorative, church service in nearby Niceville, inviting state and local leaders, members and the surviving families -- most of whom say they will attend -- and even President Carter.
"We take care of our own," said the airman. "Sometimes it seems if we don't no one will take care of us."